In the bluest depths of the old city, people were turning their backs on the street, hastily closing shutters and pressing the ends of turbans and golden-edged veils to their faces. This was one public spectacle not even the most prurient passerby wished to witness. “They will cut open and vultures will eat!” whispered the only other onlooker, a portly shopkeeper, as the three Meghwal men heaved the bloated cadaver onto the back of an ox-cart. High overhead, above the guano-streaked sandstone cliffs of Meherangarh, higher even than the crenellations, temple towers and marble pavilions of the old Rajput fort, a flock of birds wheeled like fragments of floating ash.
I’d always wondered what happened to stray cows after they ended their days of traffic hassling, garbage rummaging and dozing outside temples. The answer, of course, was that in India, the land of a thousand and one unenviable occupations, someone had made cow corpse disposal a specialty. Here in Jodhpur, Rajasthan’s second city, on the fringes of the Thar Desert, the dubious birthright had fallen to members of the Meghwal community, a caste of pariah status who (literally) scraped a living preparing leather for sale to the towns tanners – a job that few of Jodhpur’s Hindus would even watch for fear of ritual pollution, let alone consider as a career.
The Meghwals are aided in their gruesome toil by the vultures from the cliffs below the fort; they swoop down and pick the carcasses clean after they had been sliced open. In recent years, however, this age-old partnership has been threatened by a dramatic drop in the vulture population, caused by a mysterious disease dubbed by the locals as “vulture virus”.
“First their heads are going from side to side, then up and down, then pap!... they are falling,” said the shopkeeper, pointing to the row of empty nests pressed into the most inaccessible niches of the cliff above.
The Meghwals are among the more obscure strands in the complex, ancient web of social and economic interdependency binding Rajasthani society together. In the London School of Oriental and Asiatic Studies library I’d come across an old British-era gazetteer listing more than a hundred distinct castes encountered at the turn of the century in Jodhpur alone, ranging from the 'twice-born' Brahmin priests and Rajput warrior-lords, to lowly ballad reciters, wandering fakirs, sweepers, eunuchs, oil pressers, acrobats, leaf-plate makers and a dozen different sects of sadhus.
Scanning the list, I’d wondered how many of these traditional occupations had survived the tidal wave of westernisation that had swept over the city since Independence in 1947. Were the nomadic Kathputli puppeteers or the Manganiyar Gypsy music troupes holding their own against the Bollywood blockbuster? Or had the purveyors of saffron-flavoured makhania lassi and silver-wrapped milk sweets become casualties of the cola wars? Rather than complete the prescribed whistle-stop tour of the fort and catch the first available train into the Thar, as most of my fellow travellers had done, I decided to stick around and find out.
The first step, having fought my way through the famously boisterous reception posse of rickshaw-wallahs at the station, was to find a room with a blue view. Clustered around the undulating base of the Meherangarh cliff, Jodhpur’s old city forms an extraordinarily compact, convoluted jumble of cubes painted every conceivable shade of blue, from deep-sea indigo to sun-bleached cobalt. Local legend has it the colour denotes houses owned by Brahmin families. It is more likely the blue dye, derived from copper sulphate, was added to the conventional white limewash to prevent infestation by termites, and that the practice merely became fashionable over time.
Whatever the explanation, the result is one of the most memorable skyscapes in the world – reason enough to forsake the creature comforts of Jodhpur’s suburban guest houses for an old haveli (a traditional Rajasthani town house) in the shadow of the Meherangarh cliff.
After an hour wandering under Moghul-era gateways and down unevenly paved alleys that wreaked of cow dung and medieval drains, I found exactly what I was looking for. The owner of the Shahi Guest House, Mr Bantu, looked as surprised as I did relieved. Yes, he certainly had rooms, and a terrace, but how had I found the place? “Rickshaw-wallahs misguide the tourists because I am not paying these fellows commission,” he scowled as we climbed the steep stone steps up the sides of the haveli’s enclosed courtyard.
Emerging to a blaze of blue-tinged sunlight, I gasped at the spectacle spread out around us. A geometric mass of rooftops, domes and minarets, splashed with crimson saris hung out to dry in the morning sun, rolled away to meet the mahogany mass of the cliff, like a cubist vision of a petrified sea.
Over pots of lemon tea, Mr Bantu singled out local landmarks from the chaos, and chatted to neighbours leaning out of windows and balconies. Up here at roof level, above the dank alleyways and twisting bazaars, you get a wholly different impression of the city – one dominated by bright light, big skies and the awesome profile of the fort.
Founded in 1459 by Rao Jodha of the Rathore Rajput clan, the Meherangarh citadel encircles a long table ridge that scarps dramatically on its southernmost perimeter. To the north and west, the scrub-covered sand flats of the Thar Desert, known since ancient times as Marusthali, ‘Land of Death’, sprawl for hundreds of kilometers towards Sind in Pakistan. From this impregnable vantage point, the Rajas of medieval Marwar were able to control the trans-Thar caravan trade in copper, borax, spices, dates, sugar, opium, arms, silk and elephant’s teeth to and from the ports of Gujarat. Revenue from the ultra-lucrative through traffic made the Rathores, despite the aridity of their soil, among the richest ruling dynasties in north-west India.
The resplendent palaces they erected atop Meherangarh (Rudyard Kipling’s ‘grey towers on red rock, the work of giants’) are not the only surviving testament to Marwar’s former splendour. Mr Bantu pointed to the hulking silhouette on the south-east edge of the city: the vast, 347-room Umaid Bhawan palace, built by the local Maharaja in the 1930s as a famine relief project. Conceived in the pompous imperial mold of Lutyen’s New Delhi, it serves both as home to the present royal family and – in common with many Rajasthani palaces – as a five-star hotel, complete with subterranean pool, trophy bar and colossal domed lobby and princely peacocks strutting around the lawns.
The Art Deco opulence of Umaid Bhawan is a far cry indeed from the tightly packed bazaars where I spent my first morning in Jodhpur. Hemmed in by overhanging haveli balconies and tangles of live wires, the old markets enclose a quintessentially Indian stream of street life. Elephants’ teeth may be in short supply these days, but you’d probably find some if you dug deep enough.
Jodhpur’s other traditional merchandise – laquered glass bangles, hand-crafted silver jewellery, tie-dyed cotton turbans and, most famous of all, the supple, embroidered camel-leather slippers known as jootis – are still found here in abundance, alongside more modern (but no less authentically Indian) produce: healing Ayurvedic herbs, phallic piles of technicolour kumkum powder; dayglo religious stickers for rickshaws and scooters; flashing gods and goddesses for car dashboards and home shrines; and ‘Fancy Stores’ specialising in cheap make up and safe brown underwear.
What I really wanted to track down, however, were kathputli, and it took a long bazaar crawl before I came face to face with one, glaring at me in mid-air on the edge of the old grain market, Juni Dhanmandi. Traditional Rajasthani marionettes are a dying breed. Squeezed out by cinema and satellite TV, they are nowadays more commonly encountered in tourist hotels than in the gas-lit courtyards of Jodhpur’s old havelis. Ram Das, however, heads one of the few families of active puppeteers, or barlai bhaats, left in the old city, making marionettes for sale in the day and performing for an established clientele in the evenings. He explained how his caste – who formerly wandered between villages, announcing their arrival with shrill reed-and-rubber boli whistles – only perform one play, the chequered life story of Amar Singh Rathore, ruler of Marwar in the early 17th century.
Carved from hard, heavy, insect-repellent rohira wood, the kathputlis all possess the same piercing kohl-rimmed eyes, arms made from compacted cloth and long, flowing robes. Holding the strings on separate fingers, Ram Das deftly brought the cast to life, exaggerating their comic traits: the suggestive hip thrusts and seductive looks of the courtesan; the lecherous, drunken gait of the dissolute Raja; and the pirouettes of the inept snake charmer who lost his cobra and caused mayhem in the harem.
By the time he’d finished, a crowd of schoolboys had gathered to watch me watching the puppets and, chanting the ‘one-pen-one-bonbon’ mantra beloved of children across Asia, they accompanied me en masse back to the guesthouse. Mr Bantu, shooing them away, announced my jeep was waiting. He’d arranged for a guide, Narendra Singh, to take me out to visit some of the outlying villages where music and dance castes still lived and performed.
“But first Mr David we must visit the Bishnoi. Best of backward castes in Jodhpur district!” Having heard of the robust way they had dealt with a Hindi movie mega star, Salman Kahn, who’d dared to take a pot shot at one of their sacred blackbuck antelopes a few years back, I happily agreed to the change of plan. The Bishnoi are renowned as India’s prototypical hard-core conservationists, a reputation derived from their strict observance of the 29 (bishnoi) ‘articles of life’ set down by the mystic, Guru Jambhoji, in the 15th century. These range from good old common sense adages such as ‘always bathe in the morning and drink filtered water’, ‘never smoke tobacco’ and ‘be faithful always to one woman’, to more esoteric rules underlining a reverence for all living creatures: ‘never take life nor permit others to do so’, and ‘carefully examine fuel to ensure there is nothing living in it’.
The Bishnois’ traditional land is scattered south-east of Jodhpur, spread across the sun-bleached, scrub-covered expanse of the Luni plain. As we drove, leaving a plume of pale yellow dust in our wake each time a screaming Tata truck forced us off the road, Narendra pointed to the villages along the route and explained how it was possible to tell, from the shape of their houses and the kinds of building materials used, to which each caste belonged. Similarly, the dress of the villagers who rose from their chores to wave as we passed could be read as a caste code. “Yes, those ladies, wearing thick silver ankle bracelets, they are from Gujar cow herd and milking caste. And that fellow with up-pointing moustache, he is one Rajput farmer,” Narendra informed me, twirling the handle-bar ends of his distinctively Rajput ‘tache as he did so.
A little further on, the predominance of white turbans and olive-coloured khejri trees told us we had arrived in Bishnoi territory. Narendra explained that the khejri, like the blackbuck, was especially sacred to the Bishnoi, 363 of whom had died in 1730 attempting to protect their trees from the axe-men of Amar Singh Rathore (he of puppet show fame). When he received news of the massacre, the ruler recalled his men and accorded state sanction to the Bishnois’ religion, since when relations between them and the royal family have been warm. The Maharaja now actively promotes handicraft projects in some of their villages, in an attempt to forestall the mass emigration to the capital that has broken up traditional rural life elsewhere in his former state.
By the time we’d bumped down the sand track to Guda village, Narendra and I, smothered in dust and grit, looked like wrinkled refugees from some weird tribal initiation ceremony. Our appearance could not have formed a more striking contrast to that of our host, Dhunni Tar, waiting to greet us outside his meticulously swept compound, dressed in spotless white cotton kurta and Bishnoi turban. Dhurries and low carved wood tables had been spread in the shade of his mud-walled house by his wife, Jaya. Wearing a ghanghara or full red skirt, and heavy gold nose ring, she poured us cups of majun, a preparation of milk, sugar and raw opium traditionally served to guests, before leaving us to sit out the last of the afternoon heat indoors.
Dhunni Tar talked of government plans to site an airport nearby, of the drought that had recently gripped the region, and of his hopes for his children, the eldest of whom was attending local higher education college. He nodded towards a desultory patch of millet sprouting inside a byre of thorns outside the village. Virtually no rain had fallen this side of the Aravalli Mountains for three years. In May 2000, the crisis had become a national emergency as tens of thousands deserted their parched land in search of water and fodder. “Many passed this way. You can still see the bones of their cattle by the roadside”.
At “cow dust time”, with the sun casting long shadows across the Luni plain, we helped Dhunni and his brother round up their herd of hump-backed Brahmini cows, watched by inquisitive groups of beautiful blackbuck, their tails twitching in the rich red light. Life, he said, had been hard for the past few years, but at least they had their animals, “and the tourists”.
In distant Jodhpur, those vultures who had survived the drought (and the dreaded virus) would be bedding down for the night, high on the ledges of Meherangarh. The Meghwals and the jooti-wallahs would also have downed tools. As we plodded back towards the drift of dung smoke emanating from Dhunni’s compound, my opium-soaked mind danced with visions of gaudy kathpuli puppets and I remembered that I’d accepted an invitation from Ram Das to attend one of his shows. Would Dhunni Tar and his family like to come, too, I ventured? The farmer checked with Narendra to make sure he’d heard right, smiled and shook his head. No thanks, he replied, nodding towards the satellite dish on his father’s house, they’d be watching ‘Crorepatti’, the Hindi equivalent of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire”.
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